Joyful Reason

22 March 2009

pbologo

Music is the joy of the intellect; it is the mind at play — but music is the mind at play with what Nietzsche called “the seriousness of children at play.” This afternoon I had the privilege of experiencing this joy first hand with the Portland Baroque Orchestra. Their concert this afternoon, “Italy’s Seicento: The Birth of Melody,” at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium was a wonderful presentation of early modern music.

pboticket

Everyone is familiar with the music of the high baroque such as Bach and Vivaldi, while almost as many may have a passing acquaintance with the vocal music of the early modern period, as the madrigal form is well represented in many sumptuous recordings. The instrumental music of the early modern period is less well known, and thus this concert by the Portland Baroque Orchestra (with several superb guest musicians) was especially welcome as it offered a selection of Italian early modern instrumental music.

The music of the high baroque was contemporaneous with what historians call the Age of Reason (also the title of a famous work by Thomas Paine) or the Enlightenment (Aufklarung, Illuminismo), and the rationality of baroque music has often been remarked. Early modern music, dating from immediately prior to the Age of Reason proper may be perhaps less rigorously rational, less systematic, but it could still be called the music of joyful reason. It is at once both supremely dignified and decorous, while at the same time intellectually playful.

There has been much comment among musicologists concerning the early music movement, especially in relation to what is called historically informed performance. Much of this comment has been negative. Even philosophers have joined the fray, and many books have been written on the possibility or desirability of attempting to reproduce the sound of early modern and baroque music as it would have sounded to its original audience. A generation of audiences accustomed to the lush and full orchestral sound that emerged from the nineteenth century performance tradition was initially put off by the spare sounds of historically informed performances of baroque music.

After today’s performance by the Portland Baroque Orchestra, it is difficult for me to believe that anyone could hesitate to withhold their approval from historically informed performance. The intimacy of the performance, as well as its freshness and vigor, left me entirely enchanted with the sound of this ensemble. I was, to an extent I have never before experienced at a musical performance, utterly transported. I felt myself present at a juncture of civilization; not as though present at a contemporaneous performance, but as though, by listening, I was made part of a tradition of civilization: the music composed hundreds of years ago is made new by a new performance and interpretation, and it will continue to be performed and interpreted so long as western civilization shall last. Simply by being present for a performance, I became a part of this tradition and continuity. And I not only thought it, I felt it.

Moreover, I was struck by the novelty of the entire performance. Again, to contrast with the concert hall conventions established in the nineteenth century, this early modern music in comparison was, if anything, more innovative and experimental than the nineteenth century hit parade. Instead of dozens of uniform violins, violas, and cellos, there were several early modern instruments of intriguing design and timbre: Bruce Dickey on the cornetto, Vicki Boeckman on recorder (including an enormous instrument I took to be a bass recorder), and Annalisa Pappano on the viola da gamba and lirone.

Bravo!

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